Originally Published 2004-01-12 07:36:18 Published on Jan 12, 2004
The continuing deadlock in the peace process and in the political equation between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe due to their failure to reach an accord on the ground rules for the smooth functioning of the co-habitation Government marked the political landscape in Sri Lanka during 2003.
Sri Lanka 2003: The Continuing Deadlock
The continuing deadlock in the peace process and in the political equation between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe due to their failure to reach an accord on the ground rules for the smooth functioning of the co-habitation Government marked the political landscape in Sri Lanka during 2003.

The differing perceptions of the President and the Prime Minister on how the peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) should be conducted, on the role of Norway as the facilitator and on the intentions and capabilities of the LTTE came in the way of the Government's handling of the peace process as well as of the quest for mutually acceptable ground rules for co-habitation.

As one enters the New Year, the prospects for an early exit out of this political impasse do not appear bright. This has strengthened speculation that, ultimately, the only way out of the impasse would most probably be fresh elections, provided the new elections, if and when held, do not result in another bout of unsatisfactory co-habitation. The co-habitation example works well in countries where the leaders of the political formations constituting the two poles of the co-habitation Government. show a willingness to keep their personal and political egos subdued and to work together in the national interest despite political, ideological and other differences. Such a willingness has been conspicuous by its absence in Sri Lanka so far. This will continue to be the bane of its politics in the New Year unless and until the two leaders decide to pull together.

The year 2003 marked two d ecades since the LTTE ambushed an army patrol in July 1983, killing 13 soldiers, which sparked-off anti-Tamil riots in which an estimated 300 to 600 people lost their lives. The riots signaled the beginning of the ethnic conflict between the LTTE-led Sri Lankan Tamils, who are mostly Hindus and who say they have suffered discrimination from the majority-Sinhalas who are predominantly Buddhist. The riots also marked the start of the LTTE's quest for a separate Tamil homeland. The almost two-decade old conflict has claimed the lives of about 64, 500 people and caused the displacement of about 1.6 million people.

When the United National Front led by Wickremasinghe won the parliamentary elections in December 2001, peace was sought for the insurgency-battered island with the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE signing a long-term ceasefire agreement in February 2002. V. Prabhakaran, leader of the LTTE, signaled the end of the civil war on April 11, 2002 and on September 18, 2002, the Tamil Tigers dropped their claim for independence. This was further clarified in the third round of peace talks between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the LTTE held from December 2 to 5 2002, at Oslo, Norway (prior to 2003, there were three rounds of talks between the two) when it was announced that a "historic agreement" would "explore a solution to end the island's conflict founded on the principle of internal self- determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil -speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka."

6.The first three months of 2003 saw three rounds of talks between the GOSL and the LTTE--- the fourth round from January 6 to 9, 2003 at Nakhorn Pathom, Thailand; the fifth on February 7 and 8 2003 at Berlin, Germany, and the sixth from March 18 to 21, 2003, at Hakone, Japan. While the GOSL delegation was led by its chief negotiator Prof. G.L.Peiris, who is Sri Lanka's Minister of Constitutional Affairs as well as Minister of Enterprise Development, Industrial Policy and Investment Promotion, the LTTE team was led during these rounds by its then chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, who has since been replaced ostensibly on grounds of his indifferent health.. Norway participated in the talks as the facilitator.

The LTTE was not invited to an international donors' conference held at Washington DC on April 14, 2003, as it stands designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) under a 1996 US law since October,1997. Under this law, leaders and members of FTOs are not entitled to US visas. The LTTE made no secret of its unhappiness over the failure of the Sri Lankan Government to persuade the US Government to lift its designation as an FTO.

The LTTE wrote to Wickremasinghe on April 20,2003, that it was suspending its participation in the peace talks temporarily, citing as its reasons - the GOSL's non-implementation of the provisions of the ceasefire agreement on the issue of High Security Zones (HSZ) and on the normalization process and other issues and its exclusion from the Washington Conference. It also did not take part in the Donors' Conference held in Japan on June 9 and 10, 2003, which saw representatives from 51 countries and 22 international organizations participating and culminated in an aid pledge of $ 4.5 billion to Sri Lanka over a period of four years. Actual payments out of this pledge were, however, made conditional on the progress in the peace talks.

On September 16, a new dimension was added to the peace process when the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) reiterated its demand for a separate Muslim delegation at future peace talks, if and when resumed.

In response to two earlier proposals (the second of which was made in July,2003) for an interim administration (IA) submitted by the GOSL, (both of which were rejected by the LTTE), the Tamil Tigers presented their long-awaited counter-proposal for an IA on October 31,2003, to the Norwegian facilitators. This proposal was preceded by intensive consultations held by an LTTE team led by S.P.Tamilchelvan with constitutional and legal experts from the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora during visits to France, Ireland and other Western countries.

The counterproposal consists of a plan to set up an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) for the North and East of Sri Lanka, which would have plenary powers. Critics of the ISGA have pointed out that it goes beyond what was agreed to in the third round of peace talks at Oslo and exceeds 'the parameters of federalism.' They feel that the use of the word "governance" is not without significance and have pointed out that there is no reference to the "Parliament" or the "Supreme Court" of Sri Lanka - a serious omission not by accident.

Amongst other questionable features of the counter-proposal are:

  • While the ISGA will have total financial powers, the GOSL is expected to fund it from the Consolidated Fund.
  • The LTTE has proposed a separate Auditor-General for the ISGA while the Constitution provides for only one.
  • The ISGA provides for aid internally and externally with no reference to the GOSL.
  • The North-East coastline, which is stated to be two-thirds of the total coastline, is to be unilaterally accessed and controlled by the LTTE, which would be a complete erosion of the sovereignty of the GOSL.
  • The GOSL is mentioned in the ISGA only in the context of what it has to do, but there is no reference to its rights and powers.
  • In the composition of the ISGA, Muslim representatives will have a role only within a state of subservience to the LTTE.

Public Wrangle between the President and the PM

Just when the worrisome counter-proposal of the LTTE called for a united approach by the Government, the country was plunged into a political crisis when President Kumaratunga sacked the Ministers of Defense, Interior and Information on November 4,2003, while Prime Minister Wickremasinghe was on an official visit to the US, suspended the sessions of the Parliament for two weeks and ordered the army out in the streets of Colombo ostensibly to prevent any untoward incidents.. The President justified her actions in the interests of the nation and alleged that the Prime Minister was being soft on the LTTE by allowing it to build up its military strength during the Norwegian-backed ceasefire.

However, even before the LTTE had submitted its counter-proposal, the President had hinted at such actions in an interview she gave on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum's East Asia Summit in Singapore.The "International Herald Tribune" reported on October 15,2003, that she had "threatened to dismiss the country's Prime Minister and Cabinet over deep differences in peace talks with rebels." She was also quoted as saying: "Under our Constitution the Prime Minister is merely a glorified Minister. It takes just a one-sentence letter from me to dismiss the Prime Minister and his entire Cabinet."

Earlier, the President resorted to a public debate with the Prime Minister when she released to the media letters written by her to him on September 12 and October 6 in which she had questioned him on three aspects - on dangers to the Trincomalee Naval Base and Harbour from the LTTE; on the setting-up of camps by the LTTE after the Ceasefire Agreement; and on the Government's wanting to investigate the conduct of the Naval Commander/Northern Command for reporting the dangers to Trincomalee. In his reply to Kumaratunga's first letter sent on September 17, the Prime Minister lashed out at her habit of discussing security issues through the media.

The political crisis between the President and the Prime Minister prompted Norway to pull out of the peace process on November 14, 2003. In an interview to the BBC on the same day, the Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen stated as follows:, "There will be a clear movement back to the negotiating table, if and when the political crisis in the south is resolved, so that it's clear who will represent the government's side." He added that the peace process was on hold as it is "hard to sustain a ceasefire in the absence of a political process. That is why we hope the political crisis in the south will be resolved as soon as possible."

Issues concerning India

The Sri Lankan Government's relations with India were on an upward swing with visits by the Sri Lankan Prime Minister to Delhi and exchange of visits by officials from both sides, during which a number of important agreements were signed in the areas of defense and security, economy, education and culture. India has made it clear that while it supports the unity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka as a single unified country and that the Indian position was firm opposition to any secession, it did not mean that legitimate aspirations of the Tamils should be overridden.

Some Indian analysts are alarmed at too many foreign actors getting involved in the peace process and are critical of the role of the Norway-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) which, they feel, has almost given recognition to the Sea Tigers as a legitimate navy. The attacks on the Muslim community in the East have led to a further worry that Jihadi elements are taking an interest, which could impact on India's security and national interests. Also, the periodic capture of Indian fishermen by the LTTE is another issue that Indian officials are keen to sort out with their Sri Lankan counterparts.

While the LTTE does not specifically mention its navy in its counter proposal, paras. 18, 19, and 20 of its ISGA proposal?x makes clear that should this proposal come into force, India will have to deal with the Sea Tigers. As regards the GOSL's leasing of the China Bay Oil Tank Farm in Trincomalee (which has 99 storage tanks of World War II vintage, each with a capacity to hold 12, 250 kilolitres of oil) to the Indian Oil Corporation, on a 35-year lease - the move, which has ensured an Indian presence - was seen by the LTTE as part of the GOSL's international "safety net" in its peace process.
Trends for 2004

If and when the peace process moves forward, any agreement resulting from it would require constitutional changes , which cannot be brought into force without bipartisan support for the process and its outcome. This would mean that how the political crisis between Kumaratunga and Wickremasinghe develops and is resolved would impact on how the peace process moves forward. Prabhakaran and Norway have already stated that they will rejoin the peace process only when it is definitely known whom they should deal with. Wickremasinghe has said he will not take part in the peace process if the portfolio of defense is not given back to him.

The year 2004 could see one of these political scenarios emerging: a) continued stalemate and status quo; b) a snap election; c) a resolution of differences between the President and the Prime Minister, which could then lead to the peace process getting back on track.


Though the LTTE seems to have taken a maximalist position in its counter-proposal advocating the formation of an ISGA, major parties in Sri Lanka seem to be agreed that contact with it should not be broken and that the LTTE should be encouraged to come back to the table however outrageous its demands.

India cannot remain a mute spectator to the goings-on in Sri Lanka. People from both sides of the peace process have openly made statements asking India to play a more active role as it is the only "natural ally" of Sri Lanka and has legitimate reasons to ensure that the peace process does not prove detrimental to its interests. Though it is a case of once bitten twice shy, if India does not want to get marginalized, sidelined or overtaken by events, it must play a more active role in 2004 and beyond. (12-1-04)

(The writer holds a doctorate from the Pondicherry University and is a Research Fellow in the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). E-mail: ([email protected]).

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.

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